Potential Hot Spots: June 4, 2005

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Syrian president Bashar al Assad is apparently trying to consolidate his control of the country. There has been rising dissatisfaction with his rule in Syria. Because of economic mismanagement, and the collapse of the Baath Party in Iraq, the Syrian Baath Party has lost any credibility as a revolutionary, pan-Arab movement, and is largely controlled by corrupt, aging bureaucrats who have blocked any attempts at reform. The party is also very narrowly-based, drawing most of its strength from the Alawite minority, a Moslem religious sect that includes only about 15 percent of the population. This has led to an increase in sympathy for Islamic radical movements, which tend to consider any Moslem not Sunni to be heretics. 

Assad's decision to pull Syrian troops out of Lebanon appears to have been popular in the country, though not with either the extreme Baathists or the Islamic radicals. The decision was also not popular with Syrias many business associates, and Baath Party fans, in Lebanon. These groups want the Syrians back, if only for the business opportunities, but that is not likely to happen.

Assad seems to believe that reforms are needed to permit the Baath Party to remain in power, including abandonment of the party's pan-Arab pretensions to focus on Syria's needs, broadening the party's base, and liberalizing economic and social controls. Since the extreme Baathists view his withdrawal from Lebanon as a sign of weakness, Assad may take advantage of an impending party congress to attempt a purge the dead wood. The resulting power struggle may prove interesting. 

The shoving match may already have begun, with the May 27th firing of three SCUD missiles. These were obtained from North Korea over the years, and meant to threaten Israel. But one of the missiles misfired and broke apart over Turkey. Syria is terrified of offending Turkey, because the Turks are not shy about threatening Syria militarily. Centuries of Turks handily defeating Arab armies have conditioned the Syrians to avoid picking a fight with the Turks. The missile firing was intended to send a message to Israel, but apparently the only message was, we now have three fewer SCUD missiles. Israel has made it clear that they would quickly destroy the Syrian military, and the Syrian Baath Party, if SCUD missiles were fired in Israel. 

Syria talks tough, but runs scared. Surrounded by stronger enemies, decades of pretending to be able to confront these potential foes is coming to an end. Reality is arriving, and it is bringing a lot of unrest and instability to Syria. Constantly defeated by its neighbors, Syria would also be a loser if civil war developed.

 

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